On The Film Festival Trail of An Academy Award Recipient, Marshall Curry

Four-time Academy Award-nominated documentary director, cinematographer and editor, Marshall Curry, recently received an Oscar for Best Live Action Short, The Neighbor’s Window, a narrative. How did that happen? William Goldman, American novelist, playwright, and screenwriter received Academy Awards for screenplays for some of my favorites– Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President’s Men, (Follow the money) The Princess Bride. Goldman’s quote came from a Lawrence O’Donnell tweet recently: “Nobody knows anything. Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for certainty what’s going to work. Every time out, it’s a guess and if you’re lucky, an educated one.” Marshall Curry got this one right on.

I followed his work since 2005. One of my first Film Festival reViews festival circuit appraisals was for the AFI/Discovery Silverdocs Film Festival (known as SILVERDOCS back then), Silver Spring, Maryland where I had lived for ten years. It was Street Fight, Cory Booker’s first run for mayor of Newark, New Jersey against Sharpe James that caught my attention. I didn’t keep up with the Jersey mayoral races at the time, however, this documentary captured the fierceness, the scope and breadth of what was at stake in Newark as I knew it. I sat transfixed, gripping the edge of my seat, not knowing what was going to happen next.

Perhaps it was the connection I had with Newark. Despite growing up in Clifton, known as the “White Lily” situated between Paterson and Passaic, I found design work (Paterson 200th Anniversary logo) and monster music connections (Capitol Theatre downtown Passaic) and just down the road on Route 21, was Newark Trade Typography, where I began my graphic design career. I freelanced for New Community Corporation with their neighborhood rebuilding efforts and came home often from Maryland via Penn Station near the Iron Bound section. Curiously, I was interested in the connection Marshall had at the time. Street Fight went on to win numerous awards and was nominated for an Academy Award, Best Documentary Feature. 

While his work covers a wide range of interests, the subjects and topics have an instinctive similarity– showing a person(s) life on the edge, making deliberate personal choices often being a challenger of the norm as seen in a “David vs Goliath” situation with corrupt sabotage tactics in urban politics (Street Fight); two boys and a girl pushing their abilities at a young age for a top spot in a demanding competition with professional NASCAR aspirations (Racing Dreams); the ethics of a radical environmental group, Earth Liberation Front, and definition of domestic terrorism taking activism to the next level (If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front); an American lacking in general aim or purpose in life leaves home to join the Libyan revolution (Point and Shoot); archival footage of a German American Bund Nazi rally where 20,000 filled Madison Square Garden listening to anti-Semitic, pro white-Christian Nationalist sentiments (A Night at the Garden). This 7-minute short was projected onto Madison Square Garden in New York City on the 80th anniversary of the 1939 event. Obviously, he uses strong positions to make a point come alive showing sentiment and a sense of purpose. So, when did the narrative, the story, the plan, the project come into fruition?

Last April, I saw The Neighbor’s Window at Tribeca Film Festival known for supporting lots of local as well as international filmmakers. It’s my direction as well. I am always on the look out for filmmakers that I know having seen their work travel the film festival circuit. I was not disappointed. The 20 minute drama held my attention from the start. Owning up to feeling of a little guilt when making quick assessments or judgments while holding a penchant for innocent voyeurism (listening in on a conversations often made in public without consciousness) that should be respected as private. Back in the day, the joke was when you wanted to hear the news, you open up your window. If you wanted to watch reality television, you look out your window.

It made me remember all of my neighbors, past and present, most but not all of them were good and kind and caring. I strived to cultivate neighborly relationships with a looking out for one another sensibility without stepping over the line, doing favors without keeping score, being available when there was a need without having to ask. It’s different these days. It’s not as easy to “Know Thy Neighbor” as hardly anyone knows who their neighbors are much less have an opportunity to interact with them on a regular basis. Cultural differences and respecting others as well as our own privacy are normal issues.

The counterbalance in the story is the relationship between husband and wife as they progress with having small children while trying to even out their personal and professional identities. Finding interrelationship harmony within a demanding and often chaotic family lifestyle can be daunting and disheartening. Comparing to others’ seemingly pleasurable home life can bring home the adage of “careful what you wish for” sentiment. It may be why this short hit a chord in our collective consciousness with seeing a little of the “Getting to Know You” without getting too preachy about it.

Watching festival films with audiences is my barometer for how a small gesture like this film, can make an impact. It hits home. I saw it as a genuine crowd pleaser appropriately affecting the general consensus with, in this case, winning numerous audience awards. I recommended it to a film festival committee and happy that they programmed it into their schedule. The Neighbor’s Window is an engaging personal story, told beautifully on many levels. Not surprising from other Marshall Curry documentaries, whose work vicariously takes us into other people’s lives and their inner workings, recognizing their dominant and often fragile human qualities while paying tribute to the human spirit.

In Part II of On The Film Festival Trail of An Academy Award Recipient, Marshall Curry, I’ll delve into the film festival strategy that took him from an East Coast festival nomination onto the West Coast red carpet for an Oscar. It doesn’t happen often, but it’s definitely worthy. Stay tuned.

Woodstock Film Festival 2019 Part II

Condor&Eagle On Stage

Going to Woodstock Film Festival is like going to your summer place, your country home, your neck of the woods, literally. It’s a pleasure to return to the Upstate areas in the early fall, as the season and weather changes, into a familial vortex of indie films and filmmaking connecting artists, fiercely independent mavericks with a worldly, film loving, film festival organizers and appreciative audience.

A happy destination festival with an established brand, loyal sponsors, a walking around town with cultural events and contemporary programming vision amid an artsy ‘60s atmosphere. It’s been awhile since “command central” moved from a rustic outpost with an apple cider, autumn leaves atmosphere that had a fireplace going on those crisp, drizzly, cold snaps into a light, and airy open space, a contemporary art gallery in the center of town. Several venues and the Box Office –just around the corner – are in walking distance allowing new arrivals to orientate themselves, survey the main drag, Tinker Street, scope out the shops and find the right choice for a dining pleasure.

On nice days, its a wonderful walk to the Woodstock venues– the Woodstock Playhouse and the Upstate Films Woodstock. I even made it to Bearsville Theater once, almost turning into the Byrdcliffe Artists Colony; however, without a shuttle service of some sort, you need a car and more so, the understanding of how and where to park your car. Respecting businesses parking areas so as not to cause any more unsettling during the several days of film festival for people who live and work there. It’s only challenging if you are completely unfamiliar with the layouts and did not check in advance the maps, transportation, accommodations info offered online.

This year, those logistic calculations determined my choice of film schedule. Remaining in Woodstock worked well for my limited time instead of branching out to the other theaters in Kingston, Rhinebeck, Rosendale, and Saugerties. It allowed a more relaxed, three-film-in-a-row, plus event schedule for the day. I got to see some great films that fit into my research for mastering the art of the film festival experience into the business of culture.

The story of the Mass MoCA in “Museum Town,” a High Line-type project where a long time factory employer, a local electric company, closed in 1984 sending North Adams, MA, into an economic depression. First time filmmaker, Jennifer Trainer is part of the story, one of a group of visionaries transforming the deteriorating structure into one of the world’s largest contemporary art museum. After the film, she talked about taking risks, having a gutsy mayor, local support, raising money, curator boldness, and having a great soundtrack. One of the key moments reveals musician/artist David Byrne willing to step up and promote a cause for contemporary art.

It seems the (violin) strings of music in film and musicians in film became a theme in other films like “Speed of Life,” described as a quirky, heartfelt film about the impact the sudden death of David Bowie had on a young couple. A more suitable title might have been, A Crack In the Universe after David Bowie Dies Opens into Magical Realism. It hits the right notes. The best part was a live musical performance by Robert Burke Warren, whose voice and acoustic guitar, with an especially lovely tone, was an excellent opener before the film. He played several Bowie tunes invoking images of Major Tom/Ground Control and BTW, whose shirts is he wearing? out of the “Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars” album. I’m sure the majority of audience were transported back into the day, as I was sifting between a Bowie concert at Giants Stadium, his duet with Bing Crosby or his interview on MTV where he asked a VJ why there are not more black musicians on MTV. When given a convoluted explanation that music that is not rock and roll does not get played, David Bowie looked at him with very cool, half closed eyes, “Interesting.”

That’s not all. I personally time-traveled at the “I want my MTV” screening– back to August 1, 1981, standing on the edge of a major consumer seismic shift in the way we access the music we wanted to listen to anytime, all the time. I am a witness and willing participant because we had Cablevision. It was back in the day– mid-1960s– when now billionaire, Charles Dolan built a cable system business in NYC, launched HBO (Home Box Office), the first premium programming service which played mostly American-made indie films and some foreign, likened to the “soft porn at midnight” hour. After selling HBO to Time/Life, he started Cablevision and took it into the suburbs. That’s how we had MTV in Clifton, New Jersey. It wasn’t everywhere because of the sporadic cable company territories and the wiring technology necessary for expansion. Nonetheless, it made an IMPACT. Their famously infamous “I want my MTV” campaign to push for more expansion catapulted the nascent music video industry into the outer territorial stratosphere of moneymaking in the music business with the cable industry exploding.

I hate to admit the nostalgia feeling. I am trying to shed it like a snakeskin, but I must say, watching the last thirty five+ years of music videos I loved, I can recall every video frame, edit in my mind how I would have done it differently, noting when my top favorites might be playing because you can figure out the rotation schedule after a couple of viewings. I had a Google analytics mind in the making even back then. Producer Nick Quested arrived a few minutes after the music under video rolling credits and our leftover group of ardent MTVers, or just the generational curious, had an outstanding back-and-forth with him. Nick had shot many music videos and was privy to moments that audiences deem enviable and the great thin about him was that he became part of the group that share this amazing history with the generation who lived the years and future generations who will remember it as one of those moments, milestones in the history of our music culture. Kudos to everyone involved in this project. I loved that they included the David Bowie interview about race. He was a class act and a humanistic artist and music contributor for the good of the human race.

The film that made the most impact on me was the World Premiere of “The Condor and the Eagle”, opening with an Indian incantation, it is a film about the treaties and unity the indigenous people from North, Central and South America have taken the fight for climate justice to the streets and onto the big screen– an outreach to save the planet, Mother Earth. After the screening, a final prayer that includes all humankind in this struggle. As executive director and co founder of Woodstock Film Festival, Meira Blaustein remarked during the introduction, the film came to Woodstock film programmers very late in its festival schedule, but it was a film you couldn’t say no to, and they found a way to integrate this work of climate journalism as a World Premiere that included a special invocation by indigenous people after the screening. One of their strongest connections is the forest in the Woodstock area was mentioned as a revered place for Nature’s way for artists to converge on this spot and share their visions of being. I couldn’t agree more. Woodstock Film Festival fulfills in its capacity as a bona fide high end film festival experience. Congratulations on twenty years of being fiercely independent and looking forward to years to come. Stay the course. Take risks. Dream big. Fight hard. Fiercely Independent.

Woodstock Film Festival 20th– Taking Risks!

A stellar crowd came out to celebrate Woodstock Film Festval’s 20th year, kicking off in high style with a pre festival screening of The Apollo and filling most of the 1,500 seats at the Ulster Performing Arts Center, (originally the Broadway Theater and Community Theatre), located in Kingston, New York. Executive producer and co founder, Meira Blaustein greeted long time friends and supporters of the festival up until the final moments before showtime, beaming with joie de vivre as she welcomed film festival lovers, fiercely independent filmmakers, introducing the film and coming back afterwards for a conversation with producer, Lisa Cortes and The Apollo’s historian, Billy Mitchell.

It’s a long winding road to get to this moment that will be positioned in my film festival time capsule. I have a podcast with Meira during one of my early film festival reviews (2006?) an exuberant discussion of her vision, setting in motion a place for independent filmmaker to show their work and be recognized for the risks they have taken and how it will all turnout. It’s a mystery to some, but watching this adept tactician at work, I see several practices that

Returning to my own start, Film Festival reViews, I came and watched this one grow through the years from its infancy out of a tiny office between Mill Street Road and the main drag, Tinker Street, to its current stretch across a wide swath of the Hudson Valley– including (Woodstock), Kingston, Rosendale, Rhinebeck, Saugerties– a remarkable achievement. The fiercely independent maverick moniker stuck, aptly so, with some of the best films and programming; forthright and fascinating panel discussions; fostering indie filmmaker in the best light and opportunity; where film industry players can be found roaming the Woodstock streets and venues; and where you come across knowledgeable staff and dedicated volunteers.

Meira and I often would run into each other at Sundance Film Festival, Park City, Utah in the cold month of January where introductions would be made on behalf of one another, comparing notes and chatting over the reception offerings. That’s where you ask, “So, what are you up to these days?” And, that’s how it began for Lisa Cortes as she recounted how The Apollo project took an earnest turn into making it happen. She ran into long time associate, friend, colleague, Roger Ross Williams (also a guest programmer for Woodstock) at Sundance where they decided to bring in others with the ambition of turning back-in-the-day archival footage and historical anecdotes into a current living, breathing entity that continues bringing arts and culture to the Harlem community to this day.

It was a risk for The Apollo Theater’s survival, a risk for The Apollo film’s Opening Night prominence, as well as a risk to make this gala affair into a community wide, invitational screening, free of charge, a magnanimous gesture thanking film festival attendees and sponsors for their ardent supporters in the two decades of the Woodstock Film Festival. It worked. It’s a risk worth taking and that seems to be the thread that I find connects the films I have chosen to see. Boldness is choice, in the decision to screen important messages, and the pairing of connecting shadow and substance. It is a risk to put yourself out there, your work, your song, your story. As what I’ve experienced in the days of my attendance, it is a risk totally worth taking. I thought I could get this into one blog, but thinking of every moment of film and festival, I’m going to get into segments. The thread will remain– music in film and risk taking in life.

Big Eddy Film Festival – A Class Act

The eighth annual Big Eddy Film Festival Narrowsburg, New York on the Delaware was a class act. Rather than succumb to traditional film festival fare of a celebrity-oriented gathering, the festival, produced by Delaware Valley Arts Alliance (DVAA) embraced its community with films that were inclusive– from the families who have been here for decades to the newly arrived who feel like they’ve come home– resulting in a thought provoking transport to unexpected places followed by conversations with fellow cinephiles listening to their persuasive rationalizations.

Opening night film “Narrowsburg” was the hit for that very reason, with 250 people coming out in support making it a sold out event. Trite descriptives (sleepy and bucolic) for Narrowsburg, none of which I ever thought to use in the almost fifty years since my parents bought a five acre property across the bridge on top of Peggy Runway. It was a place nearest to their own beloved homeland they had to leave after the second world war. I, in turn, fell in love with the river, the forests, roads that lead to adventures in and around town, the farmers and shopkeepers, the National Park Service that protected this essential to human existence part of the world. It was a place where people worked hard for what they had, honest, decent, respectable and loyal to their community.

Vintage photos and archival film footage were skillfully introduced especially the home movies of high school basketball taken in the very gym turned auditorium of the Narrowsburg Union, a repurposed landmark, the Narrowsburg High School. It wasn’t until halfway through the film that I came to believe it should be retitled– “How The Con Artists Castellanos Scammed Hard Working American Farmers in Narrowsburg.” Too much wise guy, Richie and an unethical Jocelyn (who went on to scam the Queens International Film Festival and was eventually deported back to France or wherever she came from) and not enough Narrowsburg.

Nevertheless, it became an ecumenical experience as I mingled with people who appeared in the film, curiosity seekers who have heard the stories over the years, and the filmmakers who worked on this film for a decade and found the story coming out of a story they first thought they had. That’s often how it works in documentaries as noted by Jan Jensen and Mark Allen, a husband and wife documentary filmmaking team on the Sunday morning panel “Married to the Work: Partners in Filmmaking and Life.” There are times you go with the flow and sometimes an abrupt turn needs to be made as the story unfolds over research and interviews often leading to other witnesses. It felt like a caper and that can become an all together different crime story.

Excellent screen projection and audio at the Tusten Theater enjoying the intimate setting encompassed by original Art Deco decorative style from the 1920s and 30s with its precise and bold geometric shapes. Too often a finely tuned viewing experience may go uncelebrated, so kudos to the supplier of the technical and projectionists. It reminds me of my favorite Sundance venue, the Egyptian Theater, along with other historic theaters that have been saved from demolition and renovated back for film screenings and performance art. The films that came from the Tribeca Film Festival included several that I had seen and recommended as programming consultant to another upcoming film festival. “Gay Chorus Deep South” brought together diverse members of our community, whether life style, religion, philosophy or the origins of whence they came. Ultimately, after the screening as the theater emptied, people waiting in the foyer for the next film were astonished to see so many tear stained faces shining with joie de vivre.

Following several patients in “The Dog Doc,” director Cindy Meehl, whose film “Buck” warmed film audiences’ hearts towards a horse whisperer’s humanistic approach, brought Dr. Marty, his family members and clinic family to the same dynamic and humanistic approach in veterinary care. It’s a look into a world where consumer transparency and regulatory protections are increasingly rolled back or dismissed becoming a foregone conclusion for increased corporate profits in the pet food as well as pharmaceutical industries. An advocate for a balance between conventional and integrative medicine, Dr. Marty and Cindy, along with their filmmaking team are on a mission of providing the starting point for recognizing increased problematic pet health issues and how it can be dealt with. We are witness to how integrative veterinary medicine is taking root; in the way we love our pets who cannot tell us what’s wrong; and where sometimes, conventional medicine is not possible to be a one-size-fits-all treatment. Their team approach, dedicated outreach to film festival audiences, and genuine concern for future veterinarians is remarkable, gaining traction with more screenings on the horizon. Stay tuned.

Nonwithstanding, I believe “Recorder:The Marion Stokes Project” was the most important film coming out of the very astute, invitational programming by festival director, Tina Spangler. There are times when the promotional film descriptions, the movie poster and program details miss the essential point of the story, as I found after I saw the film at Tribeca Film Festival. While it is a documentary of a profound thinker, civil rights and media rights activist, Marion Stokes, but by the end of the film I felt I could equate this recluse with the visionary Yoda, making for a cautionary tale of our times. She intuitively spotted future trends such as computer operating systems; was an early investor of Apple products; followed the Star Trek philosophy of diversity, gender equality and joining forces uniting Earth to explore, not conquer the universe. She feared the government portrayed in the Big Brother is watching, screen shattering ad for Apple during the 1984 Super Bowl halftime commercials. I remember watching that ad and I became an Mac advocate since that time.

Mostly, Marion Stokes feared the way the media has the power to shape our perceptions often without consequence or our understanding. That’s why she felt it was her mission to save future generations by recording and preserving on outdated technology (VHS tapes), what was documented, presented as news, information changed and edited because of policy of the corporate owners or the government in power at the time. I wish there could have been a discussion with the other people in the audience. One woman shrewdly noted how easily the documentarian, Matt Wolf, presented the family and few closely chosen personnel surrounding her, yet how he was making the viewer work harder to get to know who Marion was and her mission, her reason for being. I would love to see a change in the movie poster and show her image on the deck of the starship USS Enterprise surrounded by technology of the future with a gin martini in her hand, and a sly smile.

Overall, the Big Eddy Film Festival is one to keep an eye out for in the future. It’s an out of this world destination; a culminating vortex for the arts and artists; a community with a diverse collective of human beings, traditions and spirit; where past, present and future storytellers are welcomed. It’s in there, Narrowsburg, New York, on the Delaware.  http://www.bigeddyfilmfest.com/